Five Classic ECM Titles in High Res

John Kelman By

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If ever there were a label that deserved to have its catalog released in a high resolution format, it's Munich's ECM Records. Since its inception in 1969, the multiple award-winning record label headed by producer Manfred Eicher has truly redefined how, initially, jazz and improvised music recordings could—and, at least for some, perhaps should—sound. Attention to the minutest detail and creating albums of such pristine clarity that every layer is clearly audible—from the loudest roar to the softest decay—has garnered the label a reputation like no other...a reputation that has grown exponentially over the decades as the label has morphed from being largely a jazz label to one that now includes a sizeable classical/form-based catalog, as well as a plethora of releases that defy such easy categorization.

In fact, along with its attention to sonic clarity, breadth and depth, ECM has always been a label intent on pushing the boundaries of what music can be, right from its inception. With Eicher at the helm the label has built a reputation, across a discography of well over a thousand recordings, for releasing music of such consistently high quality that it's one of but a few—and, truly, none of the others possess the longevity, discographical size and/or broad musical continuum—where fans buy new releases sight unseen/music unheard because of their intrinsic trust in the label. Even if the album is from an artist they've not heard before, chances are that once they've heard it most label fans will be glad they did...even if it's not necessarily something to which they'd have otherwise paid attention.

It's also a label unprecedented in the lion's share of its releases being produced by a single person: Eicher. The subject of "The ECM Sound" and what it really means has been debated for almost as long as the label has been around. The certainties? There are no stock reverb settings; and the label has used so many studios and engineers over the decades that it isn't a particular room sound or the person manning the board alongside Eicher. The best and closest way to articulate what the ECM Sound is? A reflection of Eicher's musical aesthetic, which can be reduced to some minimal concepts like "less is more" and the value of space...along with an approach to producing records where every note, from its first—perhaps sharp, perhaps muted—appearance to its final fade to black, with every moment in between, as clear as a bell, even when buried deep in the mix.

But even those descriptors are superficial, at best. What makes ECM recordings so recognizable is something far more complex; any attempts to reduce its qualities to simple terms invariably waylaid by the many easily identifiable exceptions. Those who have followed the label for decades (or even those who've come to it more recently) know some of the touchstones that help render an ECM album instantly recognizable (beyond the five seconds of silence that preface every album since the '90s); but what those touchstones actually are can be the subject of heated debate. An enigma, then, albeit one that is still, somehow, uniquely identifiable.

Across the span of nearly five decades, ECM has released music in a variety of formats, from its original vinyl (and oh, how beautiful and clean were those early German pressings!) through the cassette tape years and, finally, into the digital world with the advent of CD. While there have been a very few exceptions, what's been remarkable about ECM is how well it weathered the early CD years and less than stellar analog-to-digital (and vice versa) conversion that was in its relative infancy, often resulting in albums that were clean, yes, but also brittle and lacking in warmth and depth. Indeed, when looking back at earlier recordings collected in the label's Old and New Masters Edition reissue box sets, such as 2013's Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd Quartets and Jack DeJohnette Special Edition boxes, it turns out that ECM has rarely remastered the original digital masters, unless music that has never before been released on CD is being included.

ECM's pristine sonics and lucent transparency rendered it ideal for the move to CD, where the inevitable ticks and pops that began to emerge on well-played vinyl were no longer a problem—particularly appropriate for a label whose motto was, at one point early in its lifetime, "The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence." If ECM recordings have been almost unmatched in their crystalline pellucidity at CD's lower byte size and sampling rate (16-bit/44.1KHz), how would they sound in higher resolutions?

Of course, simply presenting a recording in higher resolution doesn't guarantee anything. The words "digitally remastered from the original master tapes," when applied to poorly remastered albums, still lead many into believing they are getting a superior version of a well-loved album. Instead, they discover that, amongst other things, the new master has been heavily compressed, robbing music of important characteristics including dynamics, sonic verisimilitude and a fuller, three-dimensional soundstage. And so, just like a poorly remastered album, being reissued in a higher resolution—whether it's 24/44.1 or 24/192—doesn't necessarily mean the reissue will be worthwhile. It all depends on who did the mastering—and what they had to work with.

That said, the same "brand loyalty" that has garnered ECM a legion of loyal fans over the decades for its music and sound quality is worth considering when it comes to digital downloads of higher resolution music. And, sure enough, ECM's increasingly vast catalog of high resolution releases—both new albums and older titles—sound as wonderful as might be expected. If their vinyl and CD releases are defined by clarity, transparency and a broad soundstage, when ramped up to higher resolutions—especially increasing the byte size from 16 to 24 bits—the improvements are palpable...though oftentimes subtle as well. Whether listening to nothing but a solo piano on Keith Jarrett's superb Creation or a single (albeit heavily processed electric) guitar on David Torn's staggering only sky (both 2015), or the more fleshed-out sound of Mats Eilertsen's septet-driven Rubicon (2016) or sweeping archival reissues including Gary Burton's Seven Songs For Quartet And Chamber Orchestra (1974), ECM's high resolution reissues have brought even greater clarity, detail and transparency to recordings that already sounded like they couldn't get much better. Except, clearly, they can.

Of course, there are fallacies. While it seems true that going from 16 to 24-bit bytes makes an appreciable difference in sound quality, it's no more empirical than doubling or tripling the sampling rate. It's simply not something that can be measured: just as going to 24 bits doesn't make the sound 50% better than 16, going from 44.1 to 88.2 doesn't make it sound twice as good, nor does going from 24/48 to 24/192 quadruple anything.

First—and while this is a given with ECM, it isn't across the board when it comes to other labels—the actual quality of the mastering job, including the ears and skill of the mastering engineer, matters, first and foremost. The byte size and sampling rate vary based on how the rates at which the original recordings were made, and so some recordings can only be presented as 24/44.1, while others can be released in much higher rates like 24/96 or 24/192. While 24/192 isn't twice as good (whatever good actually is) as 24/96—the differences sometimes so subtle as to be only audible to those with very good ears and, oftentimes, many years of in-studio experience—there's no doubt that moving from 16 bits to 24 and from 44.1 to higher sampling rates can result in a broader, deeper and more delineated soundstage.

It also helps to have good gear. You'll not be able to play anything beyond 24/48 on your IOS device (you'll need a dedicated high resolution player FiiO or PONO for that), but you will be able to play it on your Mac or PC through music library/playback programs like iTunes. But even your Mac limits you, as there's no capability for using a better sound card than comes with most models...though you can improve the sound of your Mac, for example, by getting a good set of speakers, like the Paradigm Shift MilleniaOne CT Multimedia System (a powered 2.1 set of speakers) and using a separate headphone amp/DAC like the OPPO HA-2, which has the capability of substituting for the Mac's internal digital to analogue converter with its own much better DAC. You've got more flexibility for putting in a better quality onboard sound board on your Windows PC, but either way, the quality of your speakers and your DAC are the two things that will most substantially help you get the most out of high resolution music.

This Rediscovery column was created, back in late 2015, with two things in mind: first, driven by a still-ongoing (and still-undiagnosed) health problem that has reduced my written output to a shadow of its former self, the idea of revisiting well-known and well-loved albums was an incentive to write when unable to muster up the juice to review a new recording that required (and still requires) 8-10 listens (plus research) before putting virtual pen to paper; and second, the coincident upgrade to both the speakers and headphone amp/DAC in the office and the acquisition of what is most definitely the best, most accurate and most truthful set of speakers I've ever heard, the 333 stack from Ottawa, Canada-based Tetra Speakers.

Tetra is a somewhat off-the-grid company (i.e. almost never advertizes in audiophile mags and rarely, if ever, works through distributors and/or stores) that has built its customer base largely around word of mouth from musicians, engineers, producers and others affiliated with the music industry, ranging from Dave Holland, Herbie Hancock and David Torn to Peter Erskine, Ron Carter, Keith Richards and Rob Fraboni, all of whom have purchased Tetras (in some cases, like Carter, more than once). Positioned firmly in audiophile territory it's still possible, nevertheless, to get in at the low end of Tetra's product line for $1,500 (CAD) and walk away with an impressive set of 120U "listening instruments," as Tetra prefers to call its speakers.

My Tetra 333 stack hangs off of a Leema Tucana II integrated amplifier, with music fed to it either in hard media form on an OPPO BDP-105D multimedia player or, via the Apple TV box connected to it, from my Mac's iTunes library, which allows playback of music ranging from CD resolution to higher resolutions up to 24/384 and some DSD resolutions as well. I no longer listen to music using lossy compression formats like AAC or MP3.
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